Michael: This story I feel like has gotten exponentially more topical in the time since I first read it. We’re shown two people caring about each other and doggedly pursuing the advancement of knowledge while the world turns to ashes around them. Thank you for showing me that. It turns out I needed it.
I want to ask how you’re managing with that. Brexit starts today, as I’m writing these questions, and Trump has just rolled back what progress Obama made on climate change. For months I’ve been telling myself to keep making my small, positive contributions to the world despite so much of the rest of it falling apart before my eyes. It doesn’t get any easier. Have you managed to do the same? Are there any small, positive things you’ve been doing for the world you’d like to share?
Cae: Not to start off too heavy, but I guess I’ve always felt the world was ending. It just took me a while to work out how. Growing up through the tail end of the Cold War, I remember doodling mushroom clouds in the margins of my schoolwork when I should have been paying attention in class. After that, and despite the continued and calm reassurances of my rational mind, in the long dark when I couldn’t sleep I obsessed over the supposed 2012 apocalypse. It was just this feeling that’s always followed me around: the lingering suspicion that I’m watching something end.
It took me a long time to make sense of it. To see that civilisations rise and fall. I’m not talking about the showy and fiery apocalypse we see in Hollywood movies, social structures just quietly go on following their own patterns of growth and decay. And, despite our increasingly frantic insistence that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet, ours is no different. As far as our own society goes, we are living through the last days of the Western Roman Empire.
I don’t even feel like I have to argue that point much any more, there’s a whole shopping list of evidence that it’s happening. From the increasingly unpredictable and devastating effects of climate change, the worst mass extinctions since three-quarters of the living things on Earth died at the end of the Cretaceous, there are famines, war, refugees, the rise of fascism and xenophobia as representatives by alt-right political parties all around the world, and the prolonged economic collapse. At this point you can basically take your pick. Every day for the past few months especially, I feel like we’ve woken up in the morning, looked at the headlines, and felt our world grow a little smaller and darker.
I guess that’s part of the reason why I wrote this story. When I feel like everything is collapsing around me, it helps to think about our society in terms of the natural world, where things grow and die and decay and tip the balance back into life again. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, if not a meaning. A kind of comfort in the wider context.
In practical terms, I guess that I’ve been working on spending less time inside my head and more time living out in the actual physical world. Trading some of the chaotic (and often unrelentingly bleak) drone of news reports and social media for walking, volunteering, meeting up with other people. Helping them out as best I can. I think our society spends a lot of time convincing us to exist only in our own heads, in a fog of persistent anxiety where we are easily controlled and even easier to sell things. Being more in my body, and with what is actually physically around me, is the only medicine I’ve ever found for that.
Michael: “Civitas Sylvatica” plays with scale. The tree of civilization grows and flourishes and contaminates the earth around it and destroys itself, beautifully, against a backdrop of Atiador’s own civilization destroying itself. And at the end, I think Atiador encourages Kestlie to use the seeds he sends her to start the whole process again–though that’s open to interpretation. I fear I may be in the minority of SF readers in that I love a good metafiction. I like writing that encourages the reader to look up at the author, or to look back upon themselves from the perspective of the text. And I feel that, in playing with scale, “Civitas Sylvatica” is encouraging me to do that. Did you think this way at all as you were writing? Atiador mentions a Great Architect–I am too easily tempted think of that as you, Cae Hawksmoor, great gardener in the sky. And I wonder, if I went downward in scale, down into the tree of civilization Atiador has planted, if I’d find sentient beings planting their own gardeners and taking Atiador’s name in vain.
Cae: I can’t speak as to metafiction, but I definitely think that one of the greatest strengths of speculative fiction lies in portraying other worlds in such a way that we learn more about our own. Ursula LeGuin is the master of that, although I also feel as though I have to mention the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica–with its drum beat of the Cold War and the post 9/11 world always rumbling underneath the surface.
My favourite speculative fiction is always this sort of double image: the shadow of our own thoughts, structures, and systems of power overlaying a world that’s utterly alien and fantastical. It encourages us to look at the familiar with new eyes, through the use of symbol and metaphor. This story was definitely an attempt to go and play in that sandbox.
If you looked very closely at the branches of the civitas sylvatica, I’m not sure you’d see little people there, but I’m betting you’d find something that was undeniably alive. Something building, gardening, re-shaping their world to the very extent of their strength and abilities. And, just like Atiador and the Great Architect he worships, telling themselves it was godly.
Michael: Do you garden? Would you plant Civitas sylvatica, knowing it might kill everything else in your garden? Is it beautiful enough, fruitful enough, to justify the ruin it causes?
Cae: I think I’d probably describe myself as a mostly frustrated gardener. Plants fascinate me with their endless cycles and change. And there are so many wonderful reasons to learn to garden! To be a little bit closer to the skin of the world and learn how to produce a little of what you take from it.
Yet, despite all of this, all I can say is that my adventures in growing things have taught me a lot about weeds, a lot about surrendering control, and a lot about admitting defeat. I’m pretty certain, at least, that the caterpillars and blackbirds that currently reside in the tangled wilderness behind my house are much happier without my interfering.
And trust me, if I can’t grow a potato, then you really don’t want me trying my hand at the tree of civilisation! No, I’ll just continue to sow weeds around the edges for the caterpillars to hide in, and let the tree of civilisation do what it does, I think.
Michael: Can you tell me how you thought about the World Tree myth in writing this story? Were there any specific instances of that myth you were referencing in particular? I feel like there ought to be epic trees that play home to civilizations popping up in fantasy all the time, yet in some ways it seems a neglected trope. Thank you for contributing a little to its rebirth.
Cae: Trees are incredible creatures. They’re both like us, and not like us. A lot of the smaller trees are roughly the same height as a person and have about the same lifespan. And all the time we’re finding out new impossible things about them–how they communicate through root networks and support the weakest and sickest members of their colony. They’re just like us, except they’re also like a lung turned inside out that sheds its skin in winter, right?
They’re a gateway between the known and the unknown, but we also see something of ourselves in them. And we can recognise things about ourselves from our relationship to them. At the moment, a lot of what that relationship tells us isn’t good. I’m not just talking about clear-cutting and the worldwide destruction of our forests in favour of plantations that are basically factory farms for trees, although that’s part of it. Our relationship with individual trees can be just as telling.
As I write this, I’m not long back from a walking trip to Sherwood Forest where we went to see the Major Oak–a thousand-year-old behemoth that has the somewhat dubious honour of being “Britain’s Favourite Tree”. This becomes rather more amusing and ironic when you realise it looks like an old sock that most of the elastic has gone out of. The whole tree is strung together with cables and held up by girders to stop it from falling apart. It’s covered with lead plates to keep out the rain, all the trees around it have been cut down, and the ground’s stripped bare to help us desperately pump more nutrients into its ancient roots.
It’s a tree that’s had its day, and is dying. It only continues to live because we have put it on life support. I guess it seems fitting that it’s tied up with all the Union-flag-waving, God-Save-the-Queen-singing imperialist nostalgia-and-delusion that unfortunately makes up so much of modern ‘Britishness’. Hell, it’s even called ‘the Major Oak’. If I wrote this stuff down, you’d say I was being too heavy-handed.
To its credit, it’s worth saying that the Major Oak itself is still happily making acorns while its entire superstructure collapses like a half-burned candle, isolated from the rest of its colony over its last few days and years of its life.
Maybe a tree is exactly the right size to contain a whole civilisation after all.
Michael: Thank you very much!